Mumbai, Navi Mumbai: The father-daughter duo settled into their seats in the West Stand at Mumbai’s Brabourne Stadium on a sultry Sunday evening to watch their first cricket match together. Arya is just four years old. But Nitish knew it was her big moment. He quickly turned commentator and began explaining each delivery as the UP Warriorz took the field against Mumbai Indians in the inaugural T20 Women’s Premier League.
“Arya, did you see what the batsman did?” Nitish asked as he and the stadium jumped with joy. Mumbai Indians skipper Harmanpreet Kaur had just leaned forward and creamed a Sophie Ecclestone delivery through covers for a boundary in the 13th over. It was a heady moment. But within seconds, Nitish realised he had said something wrong. He immediately corrected himself and repeated the sentence by describing the batter as a ‘batswoman’.
It was an important correction.
The switch in Nitish’s language is not an anomaly. India’s cricket-viewing culture is shifting. The men still dominate the numbers in the stands, but women — across ages — have turned up too in large numbers with friends, partners, and young children. They are watching the game but are also marking their presence at a historic turning point in Indian cricket — the ongoing maiden women’s T20 cricket league in India. For many cricket lovers, the sport drives them to the stadiums. For fans like Nitish, it is also an opportunity to be a part of a new world, the one that will belong to his daughter.
“While watching a WPL match on TV the other day, I saw a banner saying ‘The gentlemen’s game is neither gentle nor just men’s anymore’. I knew just then I had to go to the stadium, especially when they are playing just a few miles away from my home,” said Swati, 26, who left early from her workplace in Lower Parel to attend her first women’s cricket match, 28 km away, at DY Patil Sports Stadium in Navi Mumbai. Along came her colleague Shashwatee, who had never watched a cricket match in a stadium before.
The two women, among numerous others, are leading the tide that is transforming Indian cricket. An abstract thought in theory until a few years ago, the large number of spectators in WPL matches, comprising women, men, and children, is testimony to the allure cricket possesses in India. And now it is showing strong signs that the passion for the game can look beyond the players’ gender. The economics of the game has, after all, to some extent.
With five teams, 87 players (both Indian and foreign), and two venues at different ends of Mumbai, the Women’s Premier League is a brave new world of women power — on the pitch and in the stands. It has brought women’s cricket out from the shadow of the BCCI men’s team whose players brush off money every time they step into the sun or under the floodlights. Players such as India women’s captain Harmanpreet Kaur are now brand ambassadors (Puma), Smriti Mandhana getting bought by Royal Challengers Bangalore Women for Rs 3.4 crore, and media rights for the inaugural league have been sold for Rs 951 crore.
It is also expanding the cricket universe by attracting many first-time spectators too.
Also read: Why India’s retired domestic women cricketers are left out of BCCI pension scheme
Yeh toh bas shuruaat hai
It’s Monday evening.
There’s still an hour to go for the match between Delhi Capitals and Royal Challengers Bangalore. It’s a must-win game for Smriti Mandhana-led RCB, who have lost all four of their previous encounters, to keep their hopes in the league alive.
Women sit together in clusters, unaccompanied by men, all over the Navi Mumbai stadium. It’s almost like a statement.
A group of nine women, aged between 35-40, all dressed in kurtis, with their smartphones in hand, click selfies after picking the ‘best’ seats in their wing. Seconds later, the dance cam — similar to the ‘kiss cam’ tradition seen in sporting events in the US and Canada — pans onto them, and the women break into a dance as the in-house DJ plays the peppy WPL anthem: Ye Toh Bas Shuruaat Hai, composed by Shankar Mahadevan and sung by Harshdeep Kaur, Akriti Kakar, Neeti Mohan.
The josh builds up like a storm in the stadium.
Right after the toss, which the Delhi Capitals won and elected to field, more and more people pushed in to fill the turquoise and pink chairs at DY Patil Stadium. The crowd in just one wing was enough to beat the footfall of Andheri station in peak hours. The free tickets for women and Rs 100 fee for men have surely helped to lure in people from across the city.
While the dire situation of toilets for women is a harsh reality in many sports stadiums across India and something female fans have often highlighted online, the ones at DY Patil Stadium were in decent condition.
Mandhana came out to open for RCB, and the audience went mad. Despite the previous losses, the chants of “Smriti… RCB… Smriti… RCB” filled the stadium. But Mandhana isn’t the only favourite among Indian fans; Australian cricketer Ellyse Perry is another.
“Perry, I love you,” screamed Asha from the stands as the Australian held on against Delhi Capitals’ bowling attack while her teammates got out one after the other. Asha and her group of women have been friends since childhood. More than their loyalty towards one player, watching matches together now is their way of re-living the nostalgia of the days when they used to play together.
Building a fan base from scratch isn’t easy but familiar team names and popular women cricketers make the job easier. The possibility of being seen on television adds to the attraction.
Maya struggled to keep her daughter Pihu in her seat in the seventh row. But something had caught the toddler’s attention.
It was Jemimah Rodrigues. The 22-year-old DC player seemed to be the crowd-favourite in the stadium full of RCB supporters. Rodrigues was fielding at deep cover, inches away from where Maya sat. Pihu freed herself from her mother’s grasp and ran down the stairs as her father rushed after her. He then perched her on his shoulder and went close to the boundary.
“Jemi…Jemi…Jemi…,” the toddler screamed but her voice died down among the roaring cheer of the audience around her. She couldn’t catch Rodrigues’ attention.
Then, Shakti, the tigress mascot for WPL, walked into the eastern wing and Pihu got distracted.
Ten rows above, Kishore, who had come with his friends, was cheering the loudest.
A restaurant worker, Kishore is a staunch supporter of Delhi Capitals. “Apni Shafali hai na usme [Our Shafali Verma plays for the team],” he said. Seconds later, Shafali was dismissed by Megan Schutt for a duck.
“Koi baat nahi. Jemi hai abhi [It’s all right. Jemimah is yet to bat],” Kishore said, quickly recovering.
Fandom aside, the men in the stadium have much to say too — from how to field better to bowling a perfect yorker.
“Ladkiyaan bahut sust hain [The women are very sluggish],” said a man, seated in the VIP box, during the Mumbai Indians vs UP Warriorz match at Brabourne Stadium Sunday (12 March).
Also read: Watching IPL on TV, this Rajasthan village girl bowled her way to ‘other side of screen’
Streaming free on JioCinema, some of the video compilations of Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana, Jemimah Rodrigues, and others have clocked more than 1 million views on YouTube.
Different coloured (unofficial) jerseys, red-blue caps, and yellow and blue paint are being sold outside the grounds.
Some fans bought these makeshift jerseys. Others wore the colours of the team they supported. Few had painted their faces with their team’s colours. Those who were unsure of who to support opted for the tricolour.
The new viewing culture lives outside the stadium too and bleeds late into the night.
Zaira, who travelled from Byculla with her four sisters and a brother, sat near Marine Drive Sunday, long after Mumbai Indians won their match against UP Warriorz by eight wickets. Her siblings jump at the six cups of tea and samosas they bought from the tea seller doing rounds across the length of Queen’s Necklace.
But Zaira had more important things to do first. She opened Instagram on her phone. “You rock,” the 23-year-old wrote along with a dozen heart emojis on a picture of Harmanpreet Kaur, who had scored a half-century earlier in the match and uploaded as a story.
The rest of the night flew away as the siblings discussed the finer details of the match, and planned to visit the next games in the league, which ends at Brabourne on 26 March.
But, throughout the match and after, no one mentioned the great Indian cricketing idols — no Virat Kohli, no Rohit Sharma, no Mohammed Shami. It was the night of Smriti, Harmanpreet, and Jemimah.
(Edited by Prashant)